Confucianism — Definition, Belief, History, and Facts

Definition of the Confucianism 

Confucianism, one of the most influential philosophical schools, has been the dominant official ideology in Chinese history for over 2000 years. 

It was created by Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), based on the hierarchy and etiquette system of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC). 

Confucianism Philosophy is a comprehensive ideology in regard to virtue, humanity, society, etiquette, governance, system, moral and behavioral standards, educational methodology, and conception of society. 

The main purpose of Confucianism was to establish a society with decent civilians, high moral standards, loyal and capable officials, and intelligent and benevolent monarchs. 

Chinese Character "Confucianism" (Ru) by Yan Zhenqing (709–785)

Chinese Character "Confucianism" (Ru) by Yan Zhenqing (709–785)


Origin and Founder of Confucianism

The Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) that Confucius lived in was an era of separation when many powerful overlords were searching for expansion, and the power of the kings kept shrinking. 

Therefore, the rites and Feudalism System that was built in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC) were falling apart. 

Under these circumstances, Confucius gradually formed Confucianism, through opening up the first private school in Chinese history, traveling and presenting his ideas to overlords, and editing and writing many masterpieces in his late years. 

In his opinion, societies under the reigns of King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC), King Shun (about 2287 BC — 2067 BC), and the early Western Zhou Dynasty were quite ideal, when those extraordinary and benevolence kings brought civilians stable lives.

However, ambitious warlords preferred ideas that can make their states powerful and win in wars; therefore, Confucius and his ideas were not quite popular among the ruling class.

Decades later, Confucianism and Mohism became the two foremost philosophical schools in China, which were widely spread and studied by intellectuals. 

Great Philosopher Confucius and His Students


Decline and Prosperity of the Confucianism

When Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor in the history of China, the one who built the Great Wall and Terra Cotta Warriors, established the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), Legalism was respected as the only dominant ideology. 

In the meantime, Confucianism, as well as other philosophical schools, were highly suppressed and abrogated. 

After the Qin Dynasty was overthrown, monarchs of the next empire implemented the Taoism Philosophy.

Until the year 134 BC, Emperor Liu Che of the Han Dynasty took advice from Philosopher Dong Zhongshu and respected Confucianism as the dominant ideology. 

Afterward, monarchs of the next two millenniums in the history of China barely changed this policy, though they always applied Confucianism with other ideologies, like Taoism or Legalism, in their governance. 

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183)

Debris (Xi Ping Shi Jing) of Official Confucianism Classics Carved on Stone (175 — 183) — National Museum of China (Photo by Ayelie)


Classics and Teaching Contents of Confucianism

Four Books:

  • Great Learning or Da Xue: an introduction article regarding the ultimate purpose of learning, and means of one’s self-cultivation and improvement of virtues. 


  • The Doctrine of the Mean or Zhong Yong: it presents discussions of humanity, and how the Doctrine of Mean being the best moral standard.


  • Analects of Confucius or Lun Yu: the book that recorded the words and actions of Confucius and his students. 

  • Mencius or Meng Zi: the book that recorded the words and actions of Mencius (or Meng Zi) and his students. 

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucisnist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480

Commentaries of Four Books by Great Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), Edition Printed in 1480 — Shandong Museum (Photo by AlexHe34)

Five Classics:

  • The Classic of Poetry or Shi Jing:

Included 305 poems of around 11th Century BC — 6th Century BC, and edited by Confucius. It is the first poetry anthology in China.


Among them, 160 are folk songs from different states, 105 are noble songs, and 40 are songs used in grand imperial worship and sacrifice rites. The kinds of music of these songs were gone, but the lyrics were well preserved and learned as Confucian classics.


  • Book of Documents or Shang Shu:


Important historical documentations from King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) and King Shun (about 2287 BC — 2067 BC), to the mid of Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC —  403 BC).


It mostly recorded words and actions of exceptional ancient kings, and was organized and compiled by Confucius, 


  • The Classic of Rites or Li:


Mainly concerning the official system of the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), daily etiquette, and important ceremonies, such as Coming of Age (Guan Li) and Wedding Ceremony


  • Book of Changes or I-Ching or Zhou Yi:


A book about the universe and divination, which includes 64 Hexagrams and related explanations, philosophical ideas, history, and ethnic beliefs. 


  • Annals of Spring and Autumn or Chun Qiu:


The first annals in China, which recorded and discussed the history of the State Lu, the hometown of Confucius, from 722 BC to 481 BC. 

Modern Edition of the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism

Modern Edition of the Four Books and Five Classics of Confucianism

Six Arts: 


Six important skills that taught to nobles in the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC — 771 BC), which then became essential education contents of aristocracy in ancient Chinese history. 


Etiquette (Li), Music (Yue), Archery (She), Equestrianism (Yu), Calligraphy (Shu), and Mathematics (Shu).

Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China

Six Arts (Liu Yi) of Confucianism and Aristocratic Education in Ancient China 


Main Beliefs of Confucianism 

  • Virtue and self-cultivation is a fundamental requirement for everyone.


People from all occupations and all social classes should try and obtain basic morals include “Benevolence, Righteousness, Manner, Wisdom, and Credit”. 

  • People are born with goodness instincts; proper moral education could activate and cultivate human’s inner goodness, and guide them to behave in decent ways.  

  • Hierarchy, order, and etiquette (in a family, organization, or the whole society) are highly valued, while the power of the ruling class should be restrained.

  • Intelligent people should try and participate in politics, they are responsible for the prosperity of their country.

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu

Temple and Cemetery of Confucius and the Kong Family Mansion in Qufu, Firstly Built in 478 BC and Had been Expanded and Reconstructed for Several Times in History, Biggest Temple to commemorate Confucius and His Exceptional Students.


Influential Branches and Philosophers of Confucianism


In Chinese history, the main concepts and essences of Confucianism were inherited well, though it had been developed and adjusted several times by some exceptional philosophers, and had formed into many branches.

  • Confucius (551 BC — 479 BC), or Kong Zi, extended education from nobles to civilians, and valued benevolence, etiquettes, loyalty, hierarchy, self-cultivation, and the Doctrine of the Mean.


He established the fundamental classics, education methods of Confucianism, and presented the fundamental model of a perfect society and virtuous people. 

  • Mencius (372 BC — 289 BC), or Meng Zi, proposed the theory of the original goodness of human nature.


He believed that civilians’ well-being should be prioritized to monarchs’; a benevolent king would get support and respect, while a tyrant would be overthrown by his people. 

  • Xun Zi (313 BC — 238 BC), or Xun Qing, proposed the theory of the original evilness of human nature. 


Hence, people’s kindness, moral and respectable behaviors were consequences of a good education, endless self-cultivation, and implement proper laws.


His new ideology that included Grand Unification, Divine Right of Kings, and Interactions Between Heaven and Mankind, was accepted and then promoted as the dominant ideology by his emperor in the year 134 BC. 

Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu

Great Philosopher Dong Zhongshu

  • Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200), or Zhu Zi, had organized and developed a new ideology, the Neo-Confucianism, or the Theory of Li, which then was regulated as the main subject of Imperial Examinations and official philosophy until the Qing Dynasty was ended in the year 1912. 

It included theories of the universe and humanity, relationships of knowledge and practice, and so on. 

  • Wang Shouren (1472 — 1529), or Wang Yangming, proposed the idealism School of Mind, which believed that one’s consciousness is the law of nature, and one’s inner knowledge and the action should be unified. 

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there.

White Deer Grotto Academy in Mount Lu, Firstly Built in 940, Great Philosopher Zhu Xi Reconstructed and Taught there. 


Modern Confucianism

When the feudality system has fallen apart at the end of the Qing Dynasty in the year 1912, Confucianism declined and was strongly criticized. 

As the dominant ideology, many people believed that Confucianism should take responsibility for China’s lagging behind in the recent century, and has been a big obstacle in the modernization, industrialization, and scientific development of China. 

An ancient ideology indeed is not quite adapted to the modern world, however, Confucianism is not only about feudal hierarchy. 

In recent decades, Chinese people started to accept and perceive Confucianism in a relatively objective way, by abandoning backward rules and learning its positive aspects, like literature, certain virtue, and behavioral standards, self-cultivation, educational methodologies, communication, etc.

They are, and always will be, important parts of Chinese culture.